HC Deb 06 June 1834 vol 24 cc309-18
Lord Althorp

moved the Order of the Day for the Committee on the Poor Law Amendment Bill.

On the Question, that the Speaker leave the Chair—

Mr. Cobbett

expressed his wish, that the House would inquire into the cause of the increase of pauperism before it passed this measure; it would thus ascertain whether it was necessary to pass it at all. If it were found that the evils had not increased, or that they were stationary, it might not be wise to legislate upon the subject. The instructions to the Commissioners stated, that "if the evils of the system appeared to he diminished, or to be stationary, it would be better to endure them than to incur the probable hazard of an extensive alteration." As to the poor-rates, it appeared that though they had augmented of late years, yet, that in the last year they had diminished four per cent. all over the kingdom; so that, according to the rule prescribed to the Commissioners, the House ought not to interpose, and the Bill upon the Table ought to proceed no farther. At least Parliament ought to pause and investigate the fact before it ventured to make so extensive an alteration. The House, in fact, treated the subject as if the poor had been guilty of some crime, when the fact was, that neither Magistrates, Overseers, nor poor were in fault: the fault lay in the acts of the House itself, and it was so duly sensible of that fact, that it was afraid to investigate the causes of the present condition of the poor. The Commissioners had now and then let out facts that did not quite make for the end they had in view, pleasing those who appointed them, and it was in evidence in their Report, that in the parish of Breed, in Sussex, fifty years ago, there was but one cottage that did not belong to the labourers who occupied them: now there were but two cottages the property of labourers, 182 of whom were upon the rates. In another place the labourers formerly brewed their own beer: now they neither brewed beer nor drank it. In the Report of the Agricultural Committee it was stated, that a want of employment was one of the great causes of the increase of the poor-rate, and that this want of employment occurred while at the same time a large quantity of land either was entirely uncultivated, or stood in need of better cultivation. Now what he (Mr. Cobbett) wished to know was, what the cause was of all this? He thought it ought to be explained before they proceeded with the Bill, the tendency of which was more than half to revolutionize the country. Before they proceeded with that Bill, they ought to solve the problem contained in the passage which he had referred to in the Report of the Agricultural Committee. It was his intention on the next occasion when it was proposed that the House should resolve itself into this Committee to move that, before any further proceeding with the Bill, an inquiry should be instituted of the causes of the great evils which existed under the present Administration of the Poor-laws; and also that a copy of the instructions which had been given to the Barristers who drew up the Bill should be laid on the Table.

Mr. Clay

wished to ask the noble Lord, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, whether it was not his intention to admit of appeals against the decisions of the Poor-law Commissioners being moved by writ of certiorari into the King's Bench.

Lord Althorp

did not see any importance in retaining that clause which gave the Commissioners the power of acting as justices of the peace; but with respect to the clause which provided that the orders framed by the Commissioners should not be removable by writ of certiorari into any of his Majesty's Courts of Record, he did not think, after the best consideration he had been able to give the subject, that it would be desirable to remove that clause from the Bill. If, however, before the Report of the Committee any mode could be devised of trying the legality of the Commissioners' orders, without suspending them, he should not be indisposed to adopt it; but to proceeding by writ of certiorari he decidedly objected, because it would have the effect of suspending the Orders of the Commissioners, and interfering very inconveniently with the action of the Bill.

Sir James Scarlett

conceived, that the noble Lord, by adhering to that clause, was about to establish an absolute tyranny on the part of the Commissioners. These officers would not be responsible for any of their conduct under the Bill; no action could be brought against them; there would be no tribunal to try the case or to correct anything they might do. He for one did not think that the people of England were disposed to submit to such a power, either in the Poor-law Commissioners or in that House itself. If the Commissioners were under any obligation to make only legal orders, who was to judge of the legality unless it were some of the superior Law Courts? This would be the only remedy. An action must be brought in order to ascertain whether the orders of the Commissioners were legal; but by the Bill the Commissioners, it seemed, were to be relieved from all responsibility, The noble Lord was about to establish an absolute irresponsible power which no Court of Law could control. The question was, did it become the House of Commons to intrust such a power with any man or body of men whatsoever. Unless the writ of certiorari was allowed to exist as at common law the first part of the Amendment which he understood the noble Lord was to move to the Bill would pass for nothing at all. The noble Lord was really about to establish a perfect tyranny unless he admitted of the control of the Court of King's Bench, or of some control besides that of submitting the orders of the Commissioners to the Secretary of State.

Lord Althorp

explained, that his objection to allowing the orders of the Commissioners to be removed by writ of certiorari to the Court of King's Bench arose out of the delay which such a proceeding was calculated to produce. But he repeated, some unobjectionable mode of ascertaining the legality of the Commissioners' orders could very probably be devised before the termination of the Committee. He did not so much object to allowing a question to be raised respecting their legality previous to their operation, as he did to having their legality disputed after they had been acted upon.

Mr. Grote

trusted, that the powers of the Commissioners would not be crippled. If the efficiency of the measure was destroyed, the House would incur the odium of passing an unconstitutional measure, without having the consolation of being able to derive any benefit from it.

Sir Robert Peel

said, the orders of the Commissioners would contain matter of a mixed nature, being both legal and political; and he, therefore, did not think that they could properly be submitted to the consideration of his Majesty's Courts of Record. There was a great distinction between applying to a court of justice by writ of certiorari, on a specific question of law, and going there to get its sanction to a whole code of laws before they were issued.

The House resolved itself into a Committee.

On the 21st clause, requiring the Commissioners to inquire into the expense of the poor belonging to each parish for three years, being read,

Sir Henry Willoughby

said, that he felt great objection to this clause, as it gave to the Commissioners the power of imposing a tax to whatever extent they pleased on any parish, without the consent of the rate-payers and the owners of property within the parish. In his opinion, the present clause completely annulled the provision in the 19th clause, restricting the amount of money which the Commissioners were empowered to raise to 50l. from each parish, and might have the effect of altering the value of every estate in the kingdom, by making the inhabitants of a well-managed parish united to a pauperized parish pay for the erection of workhouses for which they themselves had no need. He should, therefore, propose that the Commissioners should have the power of taxing any parish without the consent of the majority of the rate-payers and owners of property.

Lord Althorp

understood the objection of the hon. Gentleman to the clause was, that it gave the Commissioners the power of taxing parishes to any extent. The ground for the assumption was, that the Commissioners had the power of building workhouses in any parishes they pleased. The Commissioners had no such power; they merely were enabled to direct the forming unions of parishes, and they had merely the power of recommending the erection of workhouses; the parish, however, could refuse. The amount of expenditure that the Commissioners could order was comparatively small. The hon. Baronet seemed to think that parishes with small rates would object to contribute towards building workhouses. He (Lord Althorp) did not anticipate that that would be the case; he thought, that it was more likely, that parishes paying large rates would object to pay their proportion to funds for building workhouses. If the Commissioners were to have the power of building workhouses the objection of the hon. Baronet would be of some weight; but, although this was recommended in the Report of the Poor Law Commissioners, his Majesty's Government would not consent to give them such power.

Sir Thomas Freemantle

said, that it appeared to him that there was some ground for the objection of the hon. Baronet, but not to the extent that he supposed. As the Bill stood, the Commissioners would have the power of calling upon parishes to give up workhouses that were now adequate to their wants, and to contribute to the building of a general workhouse.

Mr. Grote

thought that the clause did not bear the construction put on it by the hon. Baronet. It did not appear to him, however, that in cases of unions of parishes there was sufficient provision made for ensuring that the proportionate expenses of building the workhouse should be fairly assessed.

Mr. Thomas Attwood

said, that he should support the proposition of the hon. Baronet because it tended to render the Bill absurd, although it was sufficiently absurd already. He objected to the Bill in every possible form, and thought it wrong in its object, wrong in its details, and wrong in its principles. The noble Lord had nine large volumes on the subject of the Poor Laws which no human being had ever read through, or indeed through any one of them. The noble Lord said, that his Bill was founded on the evidence contained in those volumes. This assertion reminded him of the story of a negro who had been sent by his master to count the pebbles on the shore, and who in a short time returned to his master and said, that there were 21,000,000,000. His master charged him with telling a falsehood, but the negro replied, "Go, master, and count them, and you will find I am correct." So it was with the noble Lord, who said that his Bill was founded on the facts contained in the evidence annexed to the Report, and told Members to go and read it. But he could tell the noble Lord that there was not a man in that House who could get through those volumes. The whole Bill was founded on the assumption of arbitrary power, and would, if carried, rob the poorer classes in the most shameful manner, indeed as much as was done by the Act by which a return was ordered to cash payments. Why did the noble Lord attempt to force such a Bill down the throats of the people? For his part he had never heard of any grievances growing out of the Poor-laws. The amount of the poor-rates paid at present was not greater than it was forty years ago, if they took into consideration the increase of population. At present the poor-rates of Birmingham amounted to nearly 40,000l. But the Bill of 1819 robbed the people of Birmingham of 4,000,000l. a-year. The noble Lord could not expect to live much longer. He (Mr. Attwood) therefore wished the noble Lord had, for the sake of his reputation, ended his political career before he brought forward this absurd Bill.

Lord Althorp

was not surprised that the hon. Gentleman objected to every part of the Bill when he said, that he had never heard of any defects in the Poor-laws.

Sir Henry Willoughby

said, there were not less than 220 parishes in which from one-fifth to one-twentieth of the population were said in the Report of the Commissioners to be out of employment during part of the year. Now he wished to know whether they could establish a workhouse system in parishes of this kind? He could mention one parish in which there were 100 out of work in summer and 120 in winter. Now were all those men who could not always procure work to be forced into workhouses? There were some parishes in which the single men would be quite sufficient to do all the work of the parish. The consequence in such parishes must be to send all the men with families into the workhouse, or else compel them to accept of very reduced wages. If the system in the workhouse was too stringent men would feel reluctance to enter it, and the effect would be to minimize wages in such a parish. It was well known that persons who once entered a workhouse seldom left it. He was checkmated for ever after. He was surprised to hear any man say, that this was a constitutional measure, and consistent with the Poor-laws of this country. The fact was, that the word "workhouse" did not once occur in the 43rd of Elizabeth. He would be quite satisfied if it could be shown to him that by a system of workhouses work could be procured for the redundant population.

Mr. Tower

said, he was surprised to hear the member for Birmingham say, that there were no complaints of the Poor-laws. This might be true of manufacturing districts, for they did not press so heavily upon the manufacturing as upon the agricultural interest, the former paying in the proportion of only one to twenty-two or twenty-five. He would oppose the Amendment because it tended to smother the Commissioners with two great a variety of work, and thus to impair their efficacy.

Mr. Wolryche Whitmore

expressed his surprise at the objection taken by his hon. friend (Sir Henry Willoughby) to the workhouse system altogether. If the Amendment of the hon. Baronet were carried, it would prevent many parishes in union from contributing their quota to the relief of the poor. It was a mistake to suppose that the Bill gave the Commissioners a power to erect a general system of workhouses all over the country.

Mr. Robert Palmer

did not understand that the Bill gave the power to erect workhouses without the consent of the majority of the rate-payers of a parish. He wished to know from the noble Lord what it was the Bill proposed to do in that respect?

Lord Althorp

was glad that the hon. member for Berkshire had given him the opportunity of stating, that the Bill did not give the power to build workhouses without the consent of the majority of the rate-payers of the parish. The Commissioners had the power to suggest to the parish the erection of a workhouse, but the erection was not to take place without the consent of the rate-payers, not even in unions of parishes. The Bill did not involve the necessity of giving no relief out of the workhouse, or of erecting workhouses throughout the country, without the consent of the majority of the owners of property. The question whether the workhouse system might not be better applied was a different thing; but it would be absurd to suppose that the Bill meant to sanction a general system of workhouses throughout the country. The power of giving relief out of doors would still remain as before. The only difference would be, that the Magistrates would not have the same power as formerly to award relief, that power resting with the guardians of the poor.

Mr. Benett

contended, that the parish would have no effectual control over the erection of workhouses unless the clause were worded "and" with the consent, instead of "or" with the consent of the guardians of the poor. He had the strongest objection to a general workhouse system, and on that ground he would support the Amendment of the hon. Baronet.

Lord Althorp

said, that it had been stated by the hon. member for Wiltshire that country gentlemen would, under this Bill, no longer be guardians of the poor in their respective parishes. If his hon. friend would look more closely into the Act, he would find that the fact was decidedly the reverse, for one Magistrate in each district would be a guardian of the poor.

Mr. Hodges

looked upon the measure as one for giving aid to the sick and employment to the able-bodied poor. Now, in this clause the Commissioners were directed to inquire into the expenses incurred for three previous years in the parishes about to be united for the support of the poor, and thereupon to strike an average for the whole. It appeared to him, that they should, in inquiring into such expense, make an analytical division of it, showing how much had been incurred for the support of the aged and impotent, and how much for the support of the able-bodied poor in each parish. It was for the able-bodied paupers that those workhouses were intended, and it was according to the expense that had been incurred in each separate parish for the support of that class of paupers that parishes, when united, should be rated towards the expense of erecting those workhouses. Unless an analysis were made of the mode in which the expenses connected with the support of the poor for the three previous years had been incurred much injustice might be done, for in some parishes little or none might have been laid out in the support of able-bodied poor, while, owing to law expenses and other accidental causes, the outlay in other respects might have been considerable. With regard to this incorporation of parishes for the erection of workhouses, it had been tried already in Suffolk for a period of fifty years, and instead of lessening it had increased the expenditure for the poor in the parishes that had adopted it. He thought the principle erroneous and mischievous.

Mr. Poulett Scrope

agreed with the hon. member for Kent in the objections which he had taken to this clause. If passed in its present form, it would press with great hardness and severity upon those smaller parishes who at present had no workhouses at all, but who supported their poor at their own homes humanely and well. It would be extremely hard to compel those parishes, by uniting them to other and larger parishes, to contribute to the erection of workhouses that they did not want. The hon. member for Kent had referred to the failure that had attended the trial of this workhouse system in Suffolk, where it had existed for a long period. In corroboration of that opinion he would just read to the House a few extracts from the Report of Mr. Stuart, one of the Assistant-Commissioners, with regard to the incorporated hundreds in that county. The House would see what had been the effect of this incorporated workhouse system there, and they would also perceive that it had been tried exactly in the manner that this Bill proposed to introduce it all over the country. The hon. Member accordingly read a long passage from the Report, stating that the workhouse system had there failed, and that the workhouses had become prisons. The hon. Member contended, that this extract faithfully depicted what was the object, and what would be the consequences of the workhouse system as proposed to be established by this Bill. They would in fact become, as they had in Suffolk, prisons for the purpose of terrifying applicants from seeking for relief; and though such a cruel expedient might be resorted to, it would be seen that it had little chance of being attended with success. The hon. Member also read an extract from a letter of Mr. Becher, who had been described as a patron of workhouses, in which he stated, that the workhouse system as proposed under this Bill would be productive of great mischief. He (Mr. Scrope) could not support the Amendment, as it would take away altogether the power of uniting parishes, but he trusted that the noble Lord would introduce hereafter a modification of the clause so as to prevent the injustice of driving a large portion of the people into workhouses, which would be so many large prisons.

The House divided on the Amendment—Ayes 12; Noes 113; Majority 101.

List of the AYES.
Astley, Sir J. Fryer, R.
Attwood, T. Godson, R.
Barnard, E. G. Guise, Sir W.
Benett, J. Scholefield, J.
Brotherton, T. Tower, C. T.
Butler, Colonel TELLER.
Faithfull, G. Willoughby, Sir H.

The clauses as far as the thirty-second were agreed to. The Committee to sit again.

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